Networking is one of the key reasons why people attend meetings in-person; how can we best facilitate that when it comes to digital events? According to a recent survey of more than 400 event marketers by meetings software provider Bizzabo, more than two-thirds of respondents cited networking as the "biggest problem for virtual events."
This sentiment is echoed by many frustrated event planners who are attempting to re-create the natural interaction that comes with meeting face-to-face.
"When you are networking virtually, be prepared to have some conversations with a speed-dating vibe," says Anshwa Lewis, PMP, celebration curator for SwaLaRue Events, LLC. "You must have your elevator pitch and be ready to make a connection at the speed of light because virtual platforms are sometimes set up for you to have a brief five- to 10-minute conversation with one person before you are switched over to network with someone else."
But while the digital format can present limitations to the sorts of organic conversations that can occur on a trade-show floor or by the coffee station, it also presents some opportunities for creativity. We reached out to a number of digital-event experts who have shared a few of their ideas for effective ways to bring better networking online.
Challenge Attendees With a Virtual Escape Room
Escape rooms — in which a team of participants must piece together clues to solve a puzzle and get out of a locked room — have been a popular corporate activity for years. So how does this game translate to the virtual space? With surprising ease, it turns out. While specifics vary depending on the provider, in the Paruzal Games version, groups of three to 10 attendees gather on Zoom where a host introduces a scenario. People are asked to explore a graphic set of "rooms" to discover clues to help the group achieve the room's goal, "which, spoiler alert, isn't always about escaping," says James Warner, founder and CEO of the company.
"Most game scenarios center around exciting, but entirely feasible, real-world situations, whether you're securing pizza-making ingredients for your restaurant's grand-opening or sneaking backstage at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Good storylines feature the right mix of fun, team interaction and challenge," Warner adds. "Each player is encouraged to offer suggestions, supported in a safe space where the game's host assures them there are no 'wrong' approaches. What we see over and over again is coworkers surprising one another by demonstrating keen intuition and skills that aren't typically evidenced in a more formal corporate setting."
Pre-Event Photo Contest
Sometimes the most effective networking happens before the event itself. Encouraging attendees to share something personal about themselves or details about their current business needs can ensure that attendees begin the event with a sense of connection to the others joining. It can also be a way to set a fun, friendly tone before the show begins. This is an approach recommended by Marla Everett, CMP, CMM, CITP, director of consulting solutions at Event Travel Management, who has used event apps to create pre-event themed contests.
"For one event, invitees were encouraged to send in a selfie of their outfit that fit the theme and also their 'at-home event spread'," says Everett.
Whether the pre-event contest is funny or more business-focused, getting guests to connect and contribute to the content before the show starts can provide a chance for attendees to get to know others ahead of time and encourages greater engagement during the event itself.
Grabbing a coffee is one of the most familiar ways for people to connect and share their business needs, so finding a way to bring that into the digital space can be an effective way to encourage interaction between attendees. That's the thinking behind the Coffee Talk feature from digital-events company Virtual With Us.
When an attendee registers for the event, they receive the Coffee Chat Community Members List and a coffee kit with a selection of four different artisanal coffees and a personal french press. "The panel will introduce themselves to the group and speak on a few highlighted topics to get the event started," explains Henry Guttilla, executive creative director for Virtual With Us. "Once the discussion is over, Coffee Chats will commence. This will allow attendees to network and have one-on-one face time with individuals."
A more informal coffee chat period, scheduled before or between education sessions or meetings in a distinct virtual room (which could be even be themed with a background of a coffee shop) can provide a more casual way for attendees to check in with one another over a mug of coffee or tea.
Virtual House Band
A performance from a musician can be an entertaining way to keep the audience engaged. Even better: Hire a musician who can turn the concert into an interactive networking experience. That's the approach of SongDivision, which provides a wide range of musical services to groups and gatherings. The company's team of professional musicians can take requests, play "guess that tune"-style games, or create an original song for an event or company, based on audience suggestions.
For Northstar Meetings Group's Stella Awards Virtual Showcase, SongDivision served as the award ceremony's "virtual house band," taking requests, playing music to bring winners "on stage" to receive their awards and even creating a theme song for the show. Watch the full event here.
Interactive Mixology Lesson
An effective way to add some smiles to a virtual happy hour is to have a mixologist join and guide attendees through a themed cocktail-preparing lesson. Of course, just watching a drink expert whip up a beverage won't necessarily encourage interaction between attendees (no matter how lively the chat area may be), so it is key for the planner to seek ways for interaction among those taking part.
Marla Everett from Event Travel Management refers to a recent event they created in which they showed individuals how to mix their own drink, and then immediately shifted to 12-minute open-format discussions in which everyone could participate with beverages in hand.
Virtual With Us hosts Cocktails & Connect sessions in which guests select a cocktail ahead of time and are then sent a kit with all the essentials to make that beverage, along with a few ice-breaker cards and a contact card with information about other people in their designated lounge.
"Each cocktail lounge has a theme that will spark easy conversation around the industry or similarities among the attendees," says Guttilla of Virtual With Us. "For example, 'Manhattans & Manhattan Real Estate,' 'French 75's & Fashion' or 'Margaritas & Marketing Trends.'"
While small group activities present entertaining networking possibilities, it can be hard to beat the potential connection of focused one-on-one interactions.
"We split participants into one-on-one rooms using Zoom and set up a couple of rounds with them talking to strangers," explains Yulia Busel, events and community manager at UXPressia, a customer-experience software company. People are paired off and then given five minutes to talk, randomly paired again and given four minutes, and then three minutes and so on. "People get the hang of this really quick and connect really well," adds Busel.
Busel suggests using prompts to guide the one-on-ones, whether it's something business-focused like, "What's a silver lining for your company from this challenging year?" or a more personal query such as "What's the best meal you've ever had?"
"Do warn people in advance that your networking will be going with a one-on-one activity," suggests Busel. "Not everyone is comfortable with such a format."
Virtual Scavenger Hunt
The rules of a virtual scavenger hunt are not all that different from one in real life, but with some key opportunities to add relevance and impact. First, give the event a theme (such as "travel" or "things I'll take to the next conference when it can happen in person") then split attendees into small teams and give them a list of items they need to retrieve from around their homes. These items should be specific but general enough that they leave room for creativity, such as "funny coffee mug" or "foreign currency." Consider adding bonus points for out-of-the-box thinking.
"I first was skeptical of this idea as I thought people wouldn't engage and leave, says Yulia Busel of UXPressia, but I was so wrong. People get really creative in this type of group dynamic."
Create a Bouquet
For a more fragrant networking option, the company Zoom & Bloom offers a floral arranging workshop in which participants create luxurious bouquets under the guidance of an expert florist. Participants are sent hand-selected, seasonal flowers overnight with instructions for prepping them, along with a vase and floral arranging tools.
"Then everyone gathers for a live engaging virtual experience where — safely and socially distanced — the participants can see each other learning how to create their own beautiful arrangements," explains Rebecca Merritt, founder of Zoom & Bloom. "This is perfect for planners, or anyone wanting to give their clients or colleagues the gift of camaraderie, joy and beauty — perfect for cheering up the home or home office."
The presentation can be tailored to an organization or event theme, with attendees sharing their progress throughout.
Storytelling presents an engaging way for attendees to connect — whether via a straightforward true-life tale or a history or fable relevant to the event or the business of the attendees. The latter is the approach taken by Mercat Tours, a Scotland-based walking tour and storytelling company, which has transformed its in-person travel experiences into the virtual space. Storytelling activities are interactive activities on themes such as The Loch Ness Monster; Robert Burns' muse, Agnes Maclehose; and more. Mercat Tours will be sharing an interactive tale on behalf of sponsor VisitScotland Business Events during Northstar Meetings Group's upcoming Back to Booking digital event on Feb. 23 (register here).
An effective virtual storyteller finds ways to bring in the audience members, whether through collaborating on a tale or having them telling some stories of their own.
An effective way to get people talking is by giving them an opportunity for meaningful sharing of their personal interests, background or hobbies. Icebreaker.video offers dozens of games that follow a simple template: a compelling theme and a handful of engaging questions guaranteed to get participants chatting. For example, the Wanderlust game includes the questions, "Where have you spent the most time: underground, underwater, in the air, or in the wilderness?" and "Have you had any dangerous animal encounters?" In the company's Motivation Nation game, questions include, "What's your take on the common career advice to follow your passion?"
Answers to these questions can often be entertaining and then transition into more meaningful conversational territory.
Two Truths and a Lie
This classic ice-breaking game provides a playful opportunity for participants to share details about themselves and their businesses. Each participant provides three facts about themselves or in response to a specific theme or question — only two of which are true — and the other attendees must guess which is a lie.
Anshwa Lewis of SwaLaRue Events has played this game with a number of corporate groups and suggests planners have every attendee answer the same three questions, to cut down on the time it will take to complete the activity. "The moderator can go first," she explains, "and each person will guess the answers of the attendee before them before taking their own turn."
Create a Clubhouse
Anshwa Lewis also suggests offering "clubhouses" in which attendees can gather for free-flowing conversation, themed by interests and activities.
"These can be personal interests that attendees identify with," she says, "to allow them the opportunity to build their network with attendees that have similar interests." Topics could be things like "Working Moms," "Real Estate Investors," or "Fitness Fanatics." "This will allow a more personal and energized atmosphere for attendees to connect more dynamically, as opposed to having a room for tech, management, HR, sales and the like," explains Lewis.